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‘It was like doomsday in Handwara.’

‘It was like doomsday in Handwara.’

The Kashmiri girl who was allegedly molested and her father have been kept in ‘preventive custody’ for the past month. Now they’re speaking out

By Safeena Wani

Published on :

[Photo credit: Raja Nouman]

A little more than a month after Handwara erupted in rage over the molestation bid on a schoolgirl, I walked into a different Handwara. After the incident on April 12, five people had been killed, curfew had been imposed and angry hostility had pulsed in the small town near Srinagar in Kashmir.

Now, however, it’s business as usual in Handwara. Life seemed to have moved on and none of the earlier tension is palpable. The only noticeable difference is that the two-decade-old bunkers in the town were no longer there and with that, the sense of being stalked by army ‘watchtowers’ has also faded.

‘It was like doomsday in Handwara.’

Handwara chowk, with the bunkers dismantled [Photo credit: Raja Nouman]

However, appearances can be deceiving. Under the facade of restored normalcy is fear and its newest roots lie in the incident of April 12 and what followed.

‘Don’t you understand? You should do what we tell you.’

On April 12, the 16-year-old Handwara local had gone to a public bathroom. She came out crying and was taken to the police station when the situation got tense and word spread that an Indian army man had attempted to molest her in the bathroom. When clashes led to the death of two locals, a video was circulated by the police and army, in which the girl — face on display — was seen crying and saying a boy had grabbed her bag in the bathroom. This was the story that was submitted as her official statement to the Chief Judicial Magistrate on April 17. In the violence that followed the initial incident, five people were killed.

Yesterday, at a press conference organised by the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, the 16-year-old presented a very different version from what has been public knowledge so far. She accused the Jammu and Kashmir Police of harassing her and her family, and forcing her and her father to make false statements.

She said that on April 12, the man who had attempted to molest her had been an Indian soldier. “I entered the toilet and at that point there was no one else inside,” she said at yesterday’s press conference. “As I was exiting, an army soldier forcibly held my hand. I screamed and ran away from the bathroom area. He was in uniform.” She also said that the police were hostile to her and she was made to record the video that was circulated under duress. The girl alleged that Superintendent of Police Ghulam Jeelani was the one who recorded the video. According to her new testimony, when she had narrated her story to the police, she was abused and intimidated. “They told me that I should not say this to anyone because it would put my life and my family’s life in danger,” she said. “When I asked them why I should lie, one of them slapped me and said, ‘Don’t you understand? You should do what we tell you.’”

As far as their appearance before the Chief Judicial Magistrate is concerned, the girl said that she and her father were “forced to sign on documents and our statements were forcibly recorded before a court”. She also alleged abuse and harassment by the police. “I and my family members were also kept in police detention against our will for one month and we were abused, intimidated and harassed by the police,” she said.

A few weeks ago, I’d gone to Handwara and it was then that I discovered that the girl’s family no longer lived there. Their house was locked and neighbours had no idea where the family was. “We haven’t heard from the family for several weeks,” one neighbour told me. “We’ve not seen anybody in the house. There are six members in the family. All of them are scattered. Only their mother is living here, in her brother-in-law’s house.”

I was told her uncles lived nearby and so went looking for them, but the sight of a stranger in the neighbourhood only raises levels of alarm here. One woman, who I later learnt is the girl’s aunt, said, “Nobody is here from her [the girl’s] immediate family. We don’t know where they are putting up. Please leave.”

Fear is a powerful deterrent in Handwara. The town has seen the might of security forces over the past month. A man who identified himself as “Nayeem’s uncle” said, “I’m afraid no one will speak the truth. They fear reprisals from the police and the army.” Someone who lives in the street where the girl’s house stands locked said, “After the incident, we are frightened to talk. What terrified us were the series of night raids by the police to round up our boys.”

‘My daughter is only a kid.’

Until very recently, the girl and her father were being kept in preventive custody in a village named Zachaldara. A substantial army presence gives Zachaldara the look of a garrison. Here, in a modest home that wouldn’t stand out, I had met the girl’s father.

‘It was like doomsday in Handwara.’

The house in zachaldara where the girl’s father was being kept in preventive custory
[Photo credit: 101reporters.com]

“My other three children are living like refugees in relatives’ homes,” he said, weariness evident in every breath. “I don’t understand what protection I need when my whole family is disturbed and destroyed.” He said the police were telling him to stay in “continuous preventive custody” with the girl until they finished their probe.

Recalling April 12, he said, “It was like doomsday in Handwara. Non-stop firing, cries all around. Somehow I managed to reach home, running through fields and up hillocks. After finding my daughter missing, I rang up my close neighbour Mohammad Shafi, who works in a police station in Handwara. I’m shocked to hear that my daughter was at the the centre of the protests in town.”

He’d felt uneasy when his daughter had been taken to the police station and not been brought home, but things were going to get far worse. “At midnight, they [the Jammu and Kashmir Police] called me to the police station, saying, ‘Come and take your daughter home’. I told them, ‘Let her go to hell.’ They would not listen. So, I took my ailing wife and sister along. On reaching the station, we were arrested as if we were felons. Even our cellphones were snatched away.” He also said that the police didn’t let his family turn to the High Court to plead their case.

“My daughter is only a kid,” he said. “Nobody knew her. After this video [recorded and circulated by the police], nobody will believe her. How can she live like a normal person in society? I am worried about her future.”

At this point, a police officer barged into the house. “Who are you?” the cop asked me. When I replied, he said, “You have to come along with me to the police chowki right away.” I said I wouldn’t go. He said he was just following his SHO’s orders. “So please come with me, otherwise it won’t be good,” he said. Before leaving with me and my two local contacts, the policeman asked the father, “Where is the girl?”

“She is in Srinagar,” he replied (which came as a surprise to me because I’d earlier been told  the girl was upstairs and would be brought down to meet me). “Yesterday, we were not allowed by you people to go to court,” he said. “Later, I managed to move her to Srinagar. For God’s sake, tell me why do we need your protection? Can’t I look after my family?”

The moment we got out of the house, the police officer directed my local contacts and me to our car, and told us to leave. “We spotted you people right at the moment when you arrived here,” he said. “Start your vehicle and leave Zachaldara immediately.”

On my way back, most of my thoughts circled around the girl. Had she really not been in that house? Why had I been told that she would be brought down? Was she somewhere in Srinagar, as her father had told the police officer? Considering how close an eye the police were keeping on the house in Zachaldara, why was the police officer asking her father for the girl’s whereabouts? Where was she?

Yesterday, at least one of those questions was answered. The girl, securely wrapped in her burqa, is safe and she’s speaking out.